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16 March 2000

Our current howler (part I): The fact not mentioned

Synopsis: When a tabloid talker discussed a big trial, a key fact just never got mentioned.

Jurors told fund-raiser hid source of $100,000
Jerry Seper, The Washington Times, 2/8/00

L.A. Fund-Raiser Goes On Trial
Bill Miller, The Washington Post, 2/8/00

Veteran Gore Fund-Raiser Goes on Trial
Neil Lewis, The New York Times, 2/8/00

Hsia Is Convicted Of Illegal Donations
Bill Miller, The Washington Post, 3/3/00

Longtime Fund-Raiser for Gore Convicted in Donation Scheme
Neil Lewis, The New York Times, 3/3/00

Bush Rebuffs Bid To Embrace Views Pushed By McCain
Richard Berke and Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 3/16/00

To his credit, Jerry Seper wasted no time getting right to the political nugget. On February 8, he wrote an account of the opening day of the Maria Hsia trial. Hsia was charged with five felony counts stemmed from her fund-raising efforts for Al Gore and other Democrats. Seper's opening paragraph:

SEPER (2/8): Maria Hsia, longtime fund-raiser for Vice President Al Gore, concealed the source of $100,000 donated after a 1996 fund-raiser attended by Mr. Gore at a Buddhist temple, prosecutors said in opening arguments yesterday in her federal trial.

Say what? You mean Gore didn't know about her solicitations?

SEPER (continuing directly): Prosecutor Eric Yaffee told jurors Mrs. Hsia, a Taiwan-born U.S. citizen, hid "the true source of thousand of dollars of illegal contributions she solicited" from the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif., for the Democratic Party and the 1996 Clinton-Gore Re-election Committee.

She hadn't told Dem officials, prosecutors said. They gave an account of her motives:

SEPER (continuing directly): Mr. Yaffee said the California immigration consultant "made a conscious decision to undermine" federal election laws "to advance her own business and political interests" in an effort to gain access to Democratic politicians.

Had Jerry Seper been imagining things? As best we can tell, he had not. Other papers reported the same facts from the first day of Hsia's trial. In fact, when Bill Miller filed in the Washington Post, only the spelling of "Yaffe" was different:

MILLER (2/8): In opening statements yesterday, Justice Department prosecutor Eric Yaffe portrayed Democratic campaign organizations as victims of Hsia's conduct, saying she caused them to file false statements with the FEC. Yaffe said Hsia repeatedly disguised the true sources of contributions, covering up the fact that the money was coming from the temple and other illegal donors.

Neal Lewis had heard the same things, according to his Gotham Times piece:

LEWIS (2/8): In his opening statement, Mr. Yaffe asserted that Ms. Hsia engaged in the deception by herself along with a few close associates. Among those who were deceived, he said, were people at the Clinton-Gore campaign.

So, according to the prosecution's account of the case, Clinton-Gore were "deceived." They were "victims."

When people ask why the networks didn't make more of the Hsia conviction (given Hsia's long-standing ties to Gore), you might remember this basic fact—according to the prosecutors, Hsia's conduct was not known to the hopeful. Hsia was convicted on March 2, and here's one way to judge the fairness of the next-day reporting—see how quickly scribes reported what Miller put in paragraph 3:

MILLER (3/3): Gore, who has never been charged with criminal wrongdoing, has known Hsia since the late 1980s, and she once harbored hopes of working on his presidential campaign. Prosecutors contended that he was unaware of any problems with Hsia's activities.

It's hard to tell this story fairly without mentioning the highlighted fact. At the Times, Lewis dragged his feet a tad. Here's the opening paragraph of his page-one report:

LEWIS (3/3): Maria Hsia, a longtime fund-raiser for Vice President Gore, was convicted today of all five felony counts against her for her role in arranging more than $100,000 in illegal donations to the Democratic Party and its candidates in 1996.

In paragraph 3, Lewis found time to describe Hsia's demeanor in court; she "read a Chinese fortune-telling book to try to divine her fate," he reported, then "sat impassively as the jury delivered its verdicts." Ah-so! In paragraph 7, Lewis began going over material that had nothing whatsoever to do with the trial:

LEWIS (3/3): Mr. Gore's opponents have noted that his 1996 fund-raising efforts also included 56 telephone calls he made from the White House to solicit donations for the party, in apparent violation of federal law and longtime practice. When these calls became public knowledge, he insisted that "no controlling legal authority" had barred them, a defense repeatedly mocked by his adversaries.

And by a whole lot of scribes, we might add. In paragraph 8, Lewis reviewed those 1996 fund-raising coffees; in paragraph 9, he reminded readers that Bill Bradley said Gore would be vulnerable to attacks about campaign finance this fall. Only then, deep on an inside page, did Lewis—Oh, yeah!—mention this:

LEWIS (3/3): Prosecutors at Ms. Hsia's trial portrayed the Democratic National Committee, the Clinton-Gore committee and Representative Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island, whose campaign also received donations through her efforts, as unaware of the scheme and thus unwitting beneficiaries.

"But Mr. Gore was mentioned throughout the trial," Lewis continued, spirits brightening, "and the jurors were shown a videotape of his visit to the temple." Lewis went on to tell us how much that could damage Gore in the election.

Indeed, Gore's luncheon at the Buddhist temple will clearly play a large role in the general campaign. That is why it's important that the facts of the case be described fairly and accurately. Was Gore unaware of the source of the Hsia donations? It isn't true just because Yaffe said it. And the issues judged at Hsia's trial aren't the only relevant issues from the temple event. There are other aspects of the Hsi Lai visit that weren't at issue in Maria Hsia's trial.

But you can't report the Hsia verdict fairly without including that one central fact—the prosecution clearly stated that Gore didn't know about Maria Hsia's conduct. And that is why we were so surprised when a tabloid talker began discussing the event. On the March 3 Hardball, this excited talker devoted an entire segment to the revealing Hsia verdict. You might be surprised to review his remarks—and to notice a fact left unsaid.


Tomorrow: A highly excitable tabloid talker forgot to mention what Yaffe had said.

Police blotter: Those naughty men who are running for president have been up to their old tricks again. Yesterday, Governor Bush gave an interview in Austin to the Times' Richard Berke and Frank Bruni. Writing their account in this morning's paper, here's part of what the Timid Two said:

BERKE AND BRUNI: Mr. Bush's aggressiveness toward Mr. Gore was the latest reminder of how quickly the general election campaign had become ferocious. The governor made no effort to mask his animosity toward Mr. Gore.

Poor Berke and Bruni! One pictures them running from the Governor's Mansion covering their ears, then weeping on each other's shoulders. Here's the account the Timesmen gave of Bush's ferocious performance:

BERKE AND BRUNI (continuing directly): With little prompting at the start of the interview, Mr. Bush said that his Democratic rival was not to be trusted. Scoffing at an e-mail Mr. Gore had sent to him on Tuesday night calling for something of a disarmament on both sides' use of unregulated soft money, Mr. Bush said: "I don't trust the man. He has no credibility as far as I'm concerned about campaign funding reform."

Phew! Republicans don't trust Clinton and Gore! It's no wonder Berke and Bruni were caught by surprise at the things the Texas governor said! "Mr. Bush repeated the fact that he did not trust Mr. Gore six times," the thunderstruck pair pair then reported.

The session might have been of more value if the scolding scribes had just questioned Bush further. What did Bush mean by the statement they quoted? Does Bush think that Gore wouldn't honor the offer he made, to drop use of soft money for "issue ads?" Is that why he "scoffed" at Gore's e-mail? Bush seems to imply that he'd favor Gore's plan, if only the guy could be trusted. But we don't find out what Bush really meant, because the scribes—their ears burning—don't seem to have asked him. The published interview excerpts show one timid effort to clarify Bush's comments about Gore.

It's perfectly understandable that scribes are caught short when exposed to rude talk from unruly, rough men. But next time, instead of rushing out to play Manners Police, could the Timid Timesmen steel their souls, and maybe ask Bush a few questions?

Encore: Yo! Geraldo! Next time you could stage the segment in a beer hall, if it's going to run the way this one did—with Mark Braden interrupting and talking over Joe Conason and Gene Lyons as they discussed their new book on the Clinton decade. Their book, The Hunting of the President, offers a much-needed, contrarian account of the endless Clinton scandals; given the time that's been devoted to the various cases against Clinton, their book deserves a careful, thorough airing. But last night, Braden—included to provide balance to the discussion—provided a steady stream of distraction and noise, constantly interrupting, squawking, killing time and generally impeding the discussion.

In our view, Rivera's devotion to balanced panels has long been a four-star part of his program. Last night, the concept kept his viewers from learning about this book. Given the range of topics the book reviews, we hope there will be more to come.

By the way, one small question: When James Stewart toured TV with his best-seller, Bloodsport, stating the scandal case against Clinton, was he ever accompanied by overtalking critics? We don't recall seeing that format.